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What should we build?

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Some would like to see new high school instead of middle school

By Tom Wilmoth

    It will likely be an uphill battle trying to convince the Board of Supervisors to ante up funding for construction of a new high school instead of a new middle school. But the Bedford County School Board will at least float the issue to the supervisors before the construction project gets too far down the road.
    During last Thursday’s school board meeting, several members expressed support for construction of a new high school in the Liberty Zone, and then retro-fitting the current Liberty High School for the middle school. The board comments came after several speakers took the public comment time at the meeting to express that issue as well.
    Erin Wolk, a parent of both a high school and middle school student, said Liberty High School needs repairs, a new track, science lab upgrades and a competition gym. “It needs some serious TLC,” she said, voicing support for construction of a new high school.
    Jeff Steele, a parent and teacher at LHS, also supported constructing a new high school. “This is our chance to get it right,” Steele said.
     “I see what’s out there,” he said of the facilities students at other schools have. “I know what can be done. I’d like to see it done here.”
    The proposal would be to build a new high school on the property adjacent to the current Liberty High School that is being purchased by the county school board. Then, the current high school could be utilized for the new middle school.
    As part of the reversion agreement, Bedford County agreed to build a new middle school to replace Bedford Middle School and the school board voted earlier this month to locate that school on the property next to LHS. Discussion has also included building the new middle school with plans to eventually turn it into a high school. But Thursday’s speakers and several board members favored building the new high school from the start.
    The real issue? Money.
    “I’m definitely open to the looking at the possibility of building a high school instead of   a   middle  school,”  stated District 7 School Board Member Kevin Willis.
    Vice Chairman Julie Bennington agreed. She said she has received numerous emails on the issue supporting the construction of a new high school and renovating LHS for the middle school.
    But District 1 Board Member Richard Downey said he was concerned about the cost. “I don’t know how the finances would work out,” he said.
    Cost estimates to build a new middle school range from $32 million to $40 million. Constructing a new high school could add another $15 million to $20 million to the price tag.
    “It’s an opportunity that we need to explore,” added District 3 Board Member Dr. John Hicks Jr.
    Board Chairman Gary Hostutler said while most would agree with the concept, “it comes down to money.”
    He said that at the least, the middle school should be constructed with the plan to convert it into a high school, eventually. That could include building a competition gymnasium as part of the middle school, allowing the high school to begin using it as well.
    Hostutler suggested having discussions with the board of supervisors about the possibility. That discussion would at least take place between committees set up for the two boards on construction matters.
    One other idea was also presented during the public comment time to the board. Clay Chastain, who lives in the town of Bedford, suggested tearing down LHS and building a new high school on that site while utilizing the current middle school site for that school. He said “Old Yellow” could be torn down to provide the additional space needed for the middle school. In essence, Chastain said that option would sacrifice one historic building in order to save another, and would allow for the town of Bedford to keep the school in town. “Businesses are struggling,” he said. “Everything is going to the outskirts of town.” Chastain said his idea could help the core area of town. “We would have a win-win for everybody,” he said.
    In related action during Thursday’s meeting, the school board agreed to take bids to hire a construction management firm to oversee the school construction.

Reaction from supervisors
    So what do Bedford County’s supervisors think of the idea, floated at Thursday night’s school board meeting, about building a new high school, instead of a middle school and turning Liberty High School into a middle school?
    “First of all, I want to make sure we don’t violate the reversion agreement,” said District 3 Supervisor Roger Cheek, noting that the reversion agreement calls for building a new middle school. “Beyond that, I would have to see what kind of numbers we are looking at.” Cheek felt that this suggestion is coming up rather late in the process.
    “The first priority was the middle school,” District 6 supervisor Annie Pollard commented.
    Pollard is concerned about the additional cost, which could be as high as $20 million more.
    “I don’t believe, in this economy, that we can add $20 million more to the price tag,” Pollard said. “I think we need to build the middle school and move on.”
    Pollard said that, during reversion agreement negotiations, the county was faced with the choice of either buying Bedford Middle School, which was owned by the city, or building a new one.
    “We decided not to buy the old building because it needed so much work,” Pollard said.
    Pollard thinks the school board doesn’t know what it wants.
    “They had better look at what the taxpayers in the county can afford,” she said.
    District 2 Supervisor Curry Martin was succinct with his thoughts: “I thought we were building a new middle school,” he stated.